Why Intuitive Eating Isn’t ‘Eat Whatever You Want’
Intuitive eating is in our DNA. Yes, deep down we ALL have the tools to eat intuitively and trust our bodies to guide our food choices. You may be thinking, “that’s crazy! My body would tell me to eat cookies all dang day.” Trust me, I’ve been on the skeptic’s side of this debate and I get it.
I’m Marlee Coldwell, registered dietitian, at Ignite Nutrition and today I want to get to the bottom of why becoming an intuitive eater can feel like an endless binge… and what we can do about it!
Why do we want to binge?
The truth is, we lose sight of our intuition when external factors tell us what, when, and how to eat. You guessed it – I’m talking about diets and “clean eating”. In order to let go of the binging mentality that comes with newfound food freedom, we first need to release the idea that said freedom will eventually be stripped away from us!
Here’s the facts: you are an adult. Gone are the days when someone else has control over your food choices and how much you have to eat before getting dessert or watching TV. But childhood habits die hard. As we age, we then transition from household food rules to society’s food rules. Unfortunately, in this current culture, we’re not conditioned to just eat – in a way that feels good to our bodies. More specifically, dieting tells us what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat. Diet culture gives us a new crazy food to villainize or revere each week. Unfortunately, society implies it’s an absolute moral obligation to want to eat healthy all the time. How messed up is that?
And funny enough, our body knows better. Often times, human nature kicks in and wants to rebel against the rules. This is why the restrictive dieting rules we try to apply just don’t work long term – or leave us as VERY rigid, and obsessively thinking about f ood. As a way to compensate from this, we often see patients engage in what they would describe as binge eating, or a loss of control around food. Binging often happens because we simply feel overwhelmed, hungry, and out of control – like we can’t fit into the box we are “supposed to”.
From there, many of us cycle between restricting and binging – ‘on the wagon, off the wagon’ behaviour – without understanding why!
Maybe you’ve felt this way, and discovered intuitive eating, OR maybe you feel this way now, and are looking for a solution! This is where intuitive eating comes in – something a dietitian can help you with. Intuitive eating is a practice that improves your relationship with food and your body! In very basic terms, intuitive eating means paying attention to what is going on both inside and outside your body and using these cues to make food choices. Yes, even if what your body wants isn’t what is “healthy” according to diet culture!
Getting to habituation – a bumpy road
As you embark on the journey of intuitive eating, you will likely still hold the belief that certain foods are “forbidden” or “bad” for quite some time. I like to call these ‘status’ foods, or foods that we tend to put on a pedestal due to their special status. We don’t just unlearn years (often decades) of food beliefs overnight! Our team has so many great tools, exercises, and counselling skills to help take a closer look at these behaviours, and help YOU understand why you hold these beliefs.
It is important to add status foods back into your everyday life – WITHOUT rules for when, how often or how much – in order to “habituate” them – this is a term we use to explain what happens when the novelty of an exciting stimulus starts to wear off and becomes quite ordinary. Yes, at first you might go absolutely bananas for ice cream, potato chips, or even fruit (yes, fruit!). It all depends on what you had previously considered “off-limits”. But you need to show your body that food is never going away!
Our experience shows us that after repeated exposure to a stimulus (the food) it starts to lose its appeal eventually. You’ll fulfil the craving, you’ll have shown your body it’s not in starvation mode any longer, and that food will lose it’s special status. It will essentially become neutral!
This is where it gets tricky – as human beings we want IMMEDIATE CHANGE. However, how we want it to go is not often how it goes. Many patients don’t ‘lose interest’ in status foods right away. Everyone has a different trajectory for how quickly they get to habituation. It is also important to realize that your taste for certain foods might not change at all – For example, I like the taste of potato chips just as much now as I did before intuitive eating! However, we’re working to reduce the status of these foods by making them feel less risky and more ‘ordinary’. If I want potato chips, I can have them any time and THAT’S OK! No guilt. Just like I can have lettuce whenever I want. Food has no morality, no shame and blame.
But the cool part? You start to tune-in to your body and realize that overindulging in any food doesn’t feel very good. This is called body respect. When we get in touch with what feels good and what hunger, satisfaction, and comfortable fullness feel like, we start to realize things like this:
- “My IBS feels better when I eat a variety of foods instead of eating an entire box of crackers”
- “Having one cookie isn’t enough, but I feel uncomfortably full when I eat more than 4”
- “I have more long-lasting energy when I eat a tuna sandwich with protein and complex carbohydrates than when I go to Starbucks to get a muffin with refined carbohydrates”
… The list goes on!
Keep in mind – it’s completely NORMAL to over eat at times, and say ‘huh, maybe I should have had a bit less’ – and trusting your body to make up for it – your body KNOWS how much nutrition it needs, and will adjust your hunger and fullness if you’ve over eaten! At the same time, you may walk away feeling like you wish you had more. That’s ok too!
The important thing about this observation is, you’re a curious observer. You sit back and LEARN as you go, noticing any judgement that comes up! This is different than ‘what is WRONG with me why did I eat so much’? Instead its’ a ‘hmm – I ate a bit too much and this is how it feels in my body. I’m going to observe, and take note so I can use the knowledge for next time’. See the difference? We get our patients to write any judgement statements down, so we can take a closer look at their food thoughts next time they see us.
This is where people often get stuck or frustrated with intuitive eating. Many times, we have patients say, ‘I tried intuitive eating and I ate whatever I wanted and felt sick all the time’. The question is… is that really intuitive? I think you know now – the answer is no.
However! This CAN be a normal response to intuitive eating! We just have to get to the bottom of why, despite seeing that that type or volume of food makes you sick, you continue to engage in that behaviour. Are you afraid of food going away? Do you feel you have to hide this behaviour? Are you still seeking weight loss and restricting? Are you eating enough earlier in the day and fuelling your body well? Or are you still engaging in restrictive eating behaviours.Your dietitian can help you get to the bottom of it.
Still feeling stuck? Try these steps:
It can be really difficult to trust your body, especially when you don’t really know what feels comfortable after years of restriction! If you’re still having a hard time giving yourself permission to eat all foods freely, try implementing some of the following strategies:
- Pick one “status” food – Simply saying “give yourself permission to eat all foods” can not only be daunting, but it can also delay the whole process of habituation. Too much variety can prolong the time before foods become “ordinary” because we are constantly switching things up. Instead, choose one food, in one flavour and eat it regularly when you feel like it. Be sure to take it out, measure a portion you genuinely FEEL like eating, not one that is rule-based. The point of this is not to binge and “burn-out”, but rather to have the option to eat the food if and when you want it.
- Eliminate distractions – Eating the food you’ve chosen in a distracted environment will make it difficult to tune-in to things like hunger, satisfaction, and fullness. Turn off distractions like TV, phones, and work projects and allow yourself the space to sit and eat the food. Ask yourself: What do you like about the smell, taste, texture? How do you feel before eating the food? How do you feel after? Does it meet your expectations?
- Eat regularly – If you are now giving yourself permission to eat status foods, you may get the urge to eat less earlier in the day or skip a meal so you can eat more cookies, chips, etc. This is a diet voice, challenging you to restrict so that you can binge later. It is best to eat how you would normally eat – if you always eat 3 meals, continue to do so! Bottom line – honour your hunger. Always.
- Journal the experience – be that ‘curious observer’. Remember as a kid, going on nature hikes and writing down everything you saw, heard, experienced? Do the same thing with habituation! Take out a journal. Write down your thoughts, feelings, reactions to those thoughts, and how you think it changes your behaviour. Go back, each time and observe what you learned, and what minute changes you notice each time you eat that status food. This builds critical awareness about your food beliefs and helps you to challenge your ‘norm’.
To wrap things up, I want to remind you that holding onto dieting mentality, in any capacity, will prevent you from becoming an intuitive eater. You cannot eat intuitively and truly respect your body if you are still holding onto the idea of weight loss and fitting into a certain mold. Even if you are allowing yourself to eat more freely, your weight loss goals will quietly be dictating your food choices, meaning you are no longer listening to your internal cues!
Luckily, our dietitians can help you with that. If you’re ready to break out of diet mentality and heal your relationship with food, Ignite Nutrition can help! Check out our food relationship counselling today!